We now have three major studies of Mikhail Bulgakov's life and work: by A. Colin Wright (1978), Ellendea Proffer (1984), and this book. Curtis has chosen a narrower focus than the earlier studies, but her goals remain unclear. In the preface, she says that her purpose is "to suggest the many ways in which [Bulgakov's] preoccupation with the fate of literature spilled over into his fiction and even came to dominate it during the 1930s." But in Chapter One, she lays out different aims: "to continue the work of previous scholars both in illuminating aspects of Bulgakov's biography, and also in offering a new interpretation of The Master and Margarita" and "to show how the majority of his other works of the same period are bound up with the central theme of The Master and Margarita, that of the creator and his art."
Curtis is most effective in "continuing the work of previous scholars." Her bibliography of primary and secondary sources is selected well (especially with Russian-language materials), and the translations she offers of archival references and seldom-mentioned comments by early critics and colleagues of Bulgakov provide the reader whose Russian is limited with materials available nowhere else. Her close analysis of Bulgakov's use and adaptation of sources for his works on Molière and the play Last Days shows that what a writer omits from his sources is as significant as what he uses and supports credibly her view that Bulgakov in the 1930s was totally absorbed in writing about the creative artist. Unfortunately, the following section on Bulgakov and Gogol yields little support for her theory.
The problems in her theory lie in definition rather man in analysis: the phrase "writer as hero" suggests something quite different from a "preoccupation with the fate of literature," and neither has the same implications as "the creator and his art." These problems are underlined when Curtis says, introducing her final chapter, that her "concern here is to undertake a preliminary exploration of Bulgakov's relationship to the views on the artist and his work disseminated by the European Romantic movement, a subject which would certainly merit a more detailed study." The eclectic nature of Bulgakov's literary interests militates against identification with any particular ideological bent, whereas his alienation from the Soviet literary scene speaks more to the rapid advance of Stalinist repression than to a romantic turn of mind.
Moreover, Curtis is no more clear about romantic views of the artist than about what she means by "the writer as hero." It is true that several of the main figures in The Master and Margarita are writers and that writers are the "heroes," in a narrow sense, of Bulgakov's works on Molière and Pushkin. But Curtis' problems in discussing Bulgakov and Gogol, who is not the "hero" in that sense of any of Bulgakov's works, her cursory treatment of Bulgakov's Theatrical Novel (in which Bulgakov himself, thinly disguised, is a "writer-hero"), and her failure to come adequately to terms with the question of who is the "hero" of The Master and Margarita, are further symptoms of a failure of definition. Its result is the provisionality not simply of her final chapter but of her whole exploration of "the [End Page 712] writer as hero in Bulgakov's work."
Curtis is certainly correct in arguing that the complex theme of creative individuals and their work in society and posterity is central to an understanding of Bulgakov's life and work, but one of the limitations in her treatment is due to the thoroughness with which she has undertaken her textual analysis and source study. What should be her central focus is too often lost in a maze of details. Some attention to Harold Bloom's way of looking at a writer's use of sources might have given Curtis a clearer way of relating textual details to her larger theme.
Because that theme is so central to an understanding of The...